The Supreme Court of the United States issued a recent decision answering the question of whether an appeal period begins after a court determines the merits of the case or after it awards attorney's fees and costs.
In Haluch Gravel Co. et al. v. Central Pension Fund et al., ___ U.S. ___ (2014), the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and held that "[w]hether the claim for attorney's fees is based on a statute, a contract, or both, the pendency of a ruling on an award for fees and costs does not prevent, as a general rule, the merits judgment from becoming final for purposes of appeal."
On June 17, 2011, the District Court entered a judgment on the merits in favor of the underlying plaintiffs, Central Pension Fund et al. ("the Funds"), ruling that the Funds were entitled to certain unpaid contributions against their employer, Haluch Gravel Co., pursuant to a collective-bargaining agreement. The Funds also sought attorney's fees and costs under the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement and the ERISA statute. Over one month later, on July 25, 2011, the District Court ruled on the Funds' motion for attorneys' fees and costs. The appeal was filed on August 15, 2011. The Supreme Court concluded that there was no timely appeal of the June 17th order because that order was a final order for purposes of both 29 U.S.C. § 1291, which confers jurisdiction on appellate courts of appeals from "final decisions" of district courts, and Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, which requires a notice of appeal to be filed within 30 days of entry of judgment.
The Supreme Court relied upon a prior case, Budinich v. Becton Dickinson & Co., 486 U.S. 196 (1988), which had held that a district court judgment was a "final decision" for purposes of § 1291 although there was an outstanding request for statutory-based attorneys' fees. The Supreme Court recognized the importance of "operational consistency" and predictability of requiring the same appellate timeframe notwithstanding whether the entitlement to fees is based upon statute, contract, or both (as is here).